Schindler's Ark


Schindler's Ark
Thomas Keneally
  • Category:Historical Fiction, Australian Fiction, Now a Major Motion Picture
  • Date Read:2 July 2022
  • Year Published:1982
  • Pages:429
  • Prizes:Booker Prize 1982, Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction 1983

I re-watched Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, his Oscar-winning movie which was based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s Ark, last night, after finishing the novel yesterday. From the start, I wish to say that I think both the novel and the movie are brilliant treatments of this terrible time in history. I read some criticism of the movie, that Jews were yet again stereotyped as money-lenders and overtly concerned with business. But then, Oskar Schindler is a German business man who is only concerned with money when the movie begins, and finds his conscience much later. In the scene where he intimidates SS guards to get his accountant, Itzhak Stern, played by Ben Kingsley, back from a prison train bound for a death camp, he clearly looks past the suffering of every other Jew on the train, their hands outstretched from the small windows of the carriages, imploring him. Without Stern, Schindler knows his business will be crippled. Schindler is a pragmatist, as Keneally tells us: “this is the pragmatic triumph of good over evil.” Another criticism: that Schindler is large and heroic while Jews are portrayed as victims. Yet Schindler was a hero, if a somewhat flawed man, and Jews were the victims of possibly the greatest crime in history, even though many Jews acted heroically. I think the movie, like Keneally’s novel, attempts to capture that complexity without belabouring the point.

It’s worth making a few more comparisons between movie and book before beginning with a discussion of the novel. Keneally’s book was published in 1982, the year after Spielberg’s blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was released. For those of the general public without a Jewish heritage who didn’t know what the Ark of the Covenant was before that movie, they sure did by the time Keneally published this novel. Yet Spielberg’s version of Keneally’s novel adopts a different name. I wondered whether he wished to avoid releasing another movie that made reference to the Ark, but I then discovered that when Keneally’s novel was released in the United States, it was given a title change, and that’s the version Spielberg read. It’s the same issue with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which was renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the America market, thereby losing the allusion to the history of the fabled stone of the original title, and making the book sound more like Disney. Or the renaming of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights to The Golden Compass for an American audience (even though I thought it a better title).

Keneally’s title is more evocative than the movie’s. ‘Ark’, of course, alludes to Jewish culture and religion: the now-lost historical relic featured in Spielberg’s earlier film which was said to house the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. It also suggests the following, which is from the first book of the Old Testament:

If you’re reading this review and you somehow know absolutely nothing about Keneally’s book or Spielberg’s movie, this is a good time for me to say that Schindler’s Ark tells a story based on true events, of a German industrialist, Oskar Schindler, who profited from the war by producing enamel kitchenware, and later founded a munitions factory which failed to produce any usable armaments for the German war effort. That was because Schindler had, by that time, become committed to helping as many Jewish people as he could to escape the death camps by employing them as ‘essential’ workers in his second factory in Brinnlitz. He used his own money to protect his workers by paying bribes, along with the money he paid the government for the labour of his Jewish prisoners, whom he was determined would not produce any usable munitions for the war effort. As a result, he was forced to also purchase casings from other factories to cover his deception as long as possible. So the ‘Ark’ of the title also carries the allusion to the Genesis story of Noah who was said to have saved the best of humanity and the natural world during the devastation of the Deluge by building his ark.

By comparison, the title of the movie refers to this:

This is an image of a page of one of the four remaining copies of the list used by Schindler, which lists what he called ‘essential workers’. His intention was to protect them on the basis that they were essential to the war effort. The movie’s title (taken from the title of the American version of the novel) is literal, while the original title is conceptual, and more forcefully evokes the central point of the story. Yet, in the novel the list is never referred to as ‘Schindler’s list’, but rather ‘the Schindler List’. There is a difference. The first implies Schindler’s authorship and agency. The second implies what Keneally is at pains to portray in his novel, and what is apparent in the movie, anyway: that Schindler was not a hard-working man, by nature; he needed others to realise the razzmatazz of his schemes, whether that was to make money, or later, to save the Schindlerjuden: the Schindler Jews. The list served Schindler’s eventual purpose, but he was not a singular agent in its creation, and his motivation for saving the Schindlerjuden may have been complex. Keneally’s narrator admits that nothing, “explains the doggedness with which, in the autumn of 1944, he prepared a final haven for the graduates of Emalia [his first factory].”

Another feature of the movie which reflects some of the approach the novel takes, is Spielberg’s choice to shoot it in black and white (apart from the contemporary scenes at the beginning and end of the movie, and some partially colourised scenes). Spielberg’s film is clearly a dramatized version of events, but the black and white images – black and white film footage being associated with historical footage in the minds of audiences – and its naturalistic style and use of large captions to provide context, suggest its historical veracity. Keneally’s approach is somewhat similar. He is not writing a biography or an historical account, but a novel, “because the craft of a novelist is the only craft to which I can lay claim,” he tells us in his Author’s Note, “and the novel’s techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar.” Yet Keneally maintains a somewhat ambivalent distance from his subject. He does not presume to know Oskar Schindler’s mind or motives first hand. Instead, his narrative follows the style of historical reportage. He takes pains to explain the process of his research and writing in his Author’s Note. In the early 1980s he still had access to many of the Schindlerjuden who cooperated and told their accounts of the Holocaust and their associations with Schindler. Many of these people appear in the final scene of Spielberg’s film. Like a historian, Keneally travelled to the key locations of the story and used other documentary evidence and testimonies about Oskar Schindler to round out his narrative. “I have attempted to avoid all fiction,” he tells us, “since fiction would debase the record.” And he relied upon survivors to check drafts of his novel, since it was also their story he was telling.

This methodology contributes to the tone of much of the novel. Keneally is evidently aware that his ‘hero’ is a flawed individual, and he is eager not to canonise him:

In fact virtue is such a dangerous word that we have to rush to explain; Herr Osckar Schindler […] was not a virtuous young man in the customary sense. In this city he kept house with his German mistress and maintained a long affair with his Polish secretary. His wife Emilie chose to live most of the time at home in Moravia, though she sometimes came to Poland to visit him.

This ‘rush’ to explain Schindler is compounded by other details: “Likewise he was a drinker, ” we are told. Schindler also associates with the SS hierarchy. He likes some and despises others, like Amon Goeth, who is responsible for clearing out the Cracow ghetto and is in charge of Plaszow where Schindler runs his enamelware factory. Schindler toadies up to the hierarchy, regardless: he drinks and parties with them; he relies upon his Nazi connections to protect himself from prosecution; and he uses their influence to make money from the slave labour of Jews. It’s not a flattering portrait, and its one Spielberg captures well in the beginning of his movie. Keneally sees the danger of idealising Schindler; as though he is aware how easily his story about Schindler will come apart if he is not the one to first reveal Schindler’s obvious shortcomings as a hero. In this sense, Keneally provides his story another ‘arc’, which is the transformation of Oskar Schindler, himself. Yet, true to his dedication to historical veracity, Keneally’s narrator avoids a trite fictionalised backstory which would explain Schindler’s character arc:

Oskar’s later history seems to call out for some set piece in his childhood. The young Oskar should defend some bullied Jewish boy on the way home from school. It is a safe bet it didn’t happen, and we are happier not knowing, since the event would seem too pat.

Even Schindler’s speech to his Jewish workers on his thirty-seventh birthday, as well as another after the announcement of Germany’s surrender ten days later, are the subject of historical equivocation in Keneally’s hands. In the film, the speech Schindler makes to his workers and the accompanying SS soldiers in his factory after the announcement of the German surrender is a definitive moment in which Oskar articulates his feelings and heroic bona fides. In the book, there are the two speeches. His birthday speech is unrecorded, so exists in the text only by comparison to the second speech. The second speech is recorded by two female prisoners who know shorthand, and Keneally’s narrator delivers it in a mixture of direct and indirect speech, allowing the narrator to articulate a subtext presumably understood by the Jewish prisoners present. Like Spielberg’s representation, Schindler offers the SS present the opportunity to leave the factory and disobey their orders to kill the prisoners. In the film it is not made clear that Schindler had shipped in weapons to allow the prisoners to combat the SS at this moment, if it is needed. But omitted also from the film is Schindler’s defence of ordinary Germans: “everyone – in judging the Germans – had to distinguish between guilt and duty.” This is a far more complex characterisation than the film allows: “Schindler was uttering a defence of his countrymen which every prisoner who survived the night would hear reiterated a thousand times in the era to come.” While fully cognisant of the terrible crime his countrymen have committed, and while his close association with the Schindlerjuden would remain for the rest of his life, Schindler, it seems, finds difficulty in accepting the terrible historical burden that many Germans now bear.

“Since this narrative has tried to avoid the canonisation of the Herr Direktor, the idea of the sensual Oskar as the desirer of souls has to be proved.”
Schindler’s Ark, page 380

It is an uncomfortable moment, but Keneally is resolute in his honest portrayal of Schindler, possibly because he knows that whatever shortcomings he identifies only serves to highlight the extraordinary sacrifice he made and the risks he took (Schindler is arrested three times in Keneally’s narrative) for the approximately 1200 Jewish prisoners he saves. For instance, of the many Jewish testimonies that later support Schindler’s character, Keneally takes pains to detail the four which were critical of him. The complaints seem petty, given that all four still credit Schindler with their survival, serving to lionise rather than condemn Schindler through Keneally’s dogged faithfulness to historical truth.

Yet this is not just a novel about a flawed gentile hero whose presence in the narrative overshadows the actions and sufferings of its Jewish subjects, as has been suggested elsewhere. In Spielberg’s movie it seems obvious that it is Itzhak Stern who holds Schindler’s enterprise together and provides a moral foundation from which Schindler grows. In the movie, it is Stern who writes the list, imbuing it with the moral weight which is, in turn, to be associated with Schindler’s character. In the novel, this task is conducted by Marcel Goldberg, a Jewish clerk who acts with the same kind of self-interest that had formerly motivated Schindler. He profits from the list, controlling who does and does not get on it. A key theme in this book is the human lottery of history: “It can’t be ignored,” Keneally’s narrator says of Schindler, “that in another age and condition, the Herr Direktor could have become a demagogue”. So, given the opportunity, Goldberg displays the same level of cupidity we would expect in any human enterprise where corruption is possible. As a result, Goldberg unpopular with other Jews, so it is not surprising this is how the novel remembers him, given Keneally’s reliance on the testimony of around fifty survivors. Yet, it is upon this basis which also means Schindler’s Ark is more than a story about its titular character. Schindler’s Ark represents the human experiences of Jewish people as witnessed by survivors. Many scenes in the movie – the killing of the female engineer who says the foundations of a building are faulty, the scene in which one survivor pretends he has been ordered to clear bags out of the way to avoid being shot, Poldek’s attempt to escape through the sewers, Dr D’s administering of cyanide to terminal patients to avoid capture by the Nazis, the desperate survival of Mrs Dresner when her neighbour refuses her a hiding place, or the random killings in Plaszow by Goeth – are all taken from the book, which is based on the stories told Keneally by the survivors. Their experiences fit into a general history of the Holocaust that is widely understood, but Keneally’s novel has captured many specific moments which would have otherwise been lost to memory, and which have become iconic moments in movie history as well.

Keneally treads a fine path between the complex, sometimes contradictory aspects of Schindler’s character, while at the same time providing a compelling representation of the Nazi treatment of Jews and their own tales of heroic survival. There is humanity in each character, even in the twisted monster of Amon Goeth, who both wishes to kill his maid, Helen Hirsch, as well as save her. I was reminded, to an extent, of Mark Raphael Baker’s non-fiction treatment of the Holocaust, The Fiftieth Gate, in which he attempts to reconcile the memories of his parents with the historical record. Baker was aware of the enormous responsibility he had to his parents, to the Jewish people, and to history when he wrote his book. Keneally’s approach is similar, in that he writes both a compelling narrative, but also wants to show his cards to the reader: ‘this is what I know, this is what I don’t; these were noble actions, but our humanity is more complex than any action, even one as impactful as Oskar Schindler’s attempt to save his Jewish workers, and sometimes what I’m going to write doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it happened. The point is to record it faithfully.’ That’s the sense I get of Keneally’s intention when I read this book. It’s a compelling read.

The 1993 Official Trailer for Schindler's List
The 25th Anniversary Trailer for Schindler's List
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Oskar Schindler
Oskar Schindler
Schindler was only in his late 30s by the end of the war. Keneally records that he turns 37 only ten days before Germany's surrender. This photo appears to show an older Schindler after the war.
Liam Neeson as Oscar Schindler
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler
Neeson's portrayal of Keneally's Schindler is perfect. His look in the film seems more polished than the photo of the real Oskar Schindler, above, but goes some way to representing Schindler's alleged charisma as well as his success with women.
The Girl in Red
The Girl in Red
This iconic image from Spielberg's film shows the Girl in Red. In the film she walks past the mayhem and violence as Goeth's troops clear the Cracow ghetto. Later, Schindler sees her dead after Goeth has been ordered to exhume and burn bodies. It is a significant inflexion point in Schindler's moral journey in the film. The significance attributed to the symbolism of this child varies, but she is clearly vulnerable and her survival or death would appear to be as random and senseless as all other Jews in the ghetto. In the book, the girl in red is Genia, and her story has a happier ending. Genia somehow survives, walking in the open right past the SS soldiers as they round up and kill the ghetto Jews. Her survival seems to suggest the strange inconsistencies in human nature, as evident in Keneally's major characters. The following extract from the book, which highlights the kindness of a German soldier in juxtaposition to the general violence, exemplifies that:

“As they watched the Waffen SS man at the rear of the column would occasionally put out his hand and correct the drift of this scarlet node. He did not do it harshly – he could have been an elder brother. Had he been asked by his officers to do something to allay the sentimental concern of watching civilians, he could have not done better […] For behind the departing column of women and children, to which the scarlet toddler placed a meandering full stop, SS teams with dogs worked north along either side of the street.”

Schindler's Ark, pages 141 - 142

Schindler's Dark Twin

“But from the evidence of Stern and others it is obvious that, from the time of their earlier contacts, Oskar abominated Goeth as a man who went to the work of murder as calmly as a clerk goes to his office. Oskar could speak to Amon the administrator, Amon the speculator, but knew at the same time that nine-tenths of the commandant’s being lay beyond the normal rationalities of humans. The business and social connections between Oskar and Amon worked well enough to tempt the supposition that Oskar was somehow and despite himself fascinated by the evil of the man. In fact, no one who knew Oskar at this time or later saw a sign of any such enthralment. Oskar despised Goeth in the simplest and most passionate terms. His contempt would grow without limit and his career would dramatically demonstrate it. Just the same, the reflection can hardly be avoided that Amon was Oskar’s dark brother, was the beserk and fanatic executioner Oskar might, by some unhappy reversal of his appetites, have become.”

Schindler's Ark, pages 187-188